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Rethinking Jewish Life: ‘For the Sake of Heaven’?
By RACHEL SABATH BEIT-HALACHMI
27/12/2012
The debate on the Women of the Wall is about the collective future of the Jewish democratic state and of the Jewish people.
 
Are these debates for the “sake of Heaven”? (Pirkei Avot 5:20) The debates raging in the press and throughout the Jewish world about whether or not Jewish women should have equal access the Western Wall as men do are not only about the Women of the Wall. The arrests and debates have gained so much attention (in The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times, Haaretz, the LA Jewish Journal and the New York Daily Forward, some of which were in response to my piece with Yossi Klein Halevi in the New York Jewish Week and our ensuing debate) precisely because, at its core, this debate is about the collective future of the Jewish democratic state and of the Jewish people. The legal and political issues being discussed are really about the meeting of modern Jewish values – egalitarianism, pluralism and democracy – with the realities of Israeli politics and the pre-modern views of some ultra-Orthodox leaders. These encounters represent the deepest challenges of Judaism and modern life.

Let’s be clear; whether or not one identifies with liberal Judaism, with the Women of the Wall (a multi-denominational group of Israeli women), with the mainstream Israeli status quo politicians, or with the ultra-Orthodox (and their disproportional control of most of Israel’s religion budget, ceremonies, synagogues and sites), the core issues are as follows, and our future here will depend on how we respond to them and whether we demand that our nation’s leaders respond to them: 1. The humanity and equality of Jewish women in general and in the Jewish democratic State of Israel in particular. Can women be sent to the back of the bus, forced to be relegated to secondary spaces and institutions and be made absent from the public sphere? 2. The legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism.

Can Jewish egalitarian movements (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and all other non-Orthodox groups) have equal representation, equal access and equal resources in Israel? Or will they continue to be treated as second-class citizens, receiving lesser resources and their rabbis not being recognized even while they are required to pay taxes and serve equally in the IDF? 3. The current and future connection of non- Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora to Israel and to Jerusalem. Should Diaspora Jews – their leaders, such as Rabbi Rick Jacobs (president of the Union for Reform Judaism) and the many non- Orthodox major philanthropists who contribute enormous resources to Israeli institutions and initiatives, such as Birthright, continue to focus on Israel as the homeland of the entire Jewish people even when the modern Judaism of millions of these Jews is rejected, thus allowing a minority of ultra-Orthodox men to continue to control many aspects of Jewish Israeli political life?

AN ARGUMENT that is “for the sake of Heaven” will have a positive outcome, the sages of the Mishna argue (Pirkei Avot 5:20). Conversely, according to the famous statement, an argument that does not have a positive outcome is not “for the sake of Heaven.” Rabbis Hillel and Shammai are brought as examples of the former and Korah and his followers as models of the latter.

Finding positive resolutions to these issues will require deeply pluralistic respect, such as the respect that the Houses of Hillel and Shammai had for one another, as well as prophetic capacities to understand what lies ahead. Regardless of how such matters are resolved in the short term, the discussion around these issues should and must be a civil discourse and very much a debate “for the sake of Heaven” because its consequences will determine our future.

To the extent to which our future is determined by our leadership, whom we support in the upcoming election should then be determined – at least in part – by if and how our political candidates address these questions: 1. Do they believe that women are fully equal to men and should have the opportunity to be equal in every aspect of the public sphere? Politicians today will always answer yes.

2. Do they accept today’s too-vague definition of “who is a Jew”? Do they believe that multiple ways of living a deep and meaningful Jewish life strengthen the Jewish people in Israel? 3. Do you believe that the ongoing connection to Israel of Jews throughout the world is essential for Israel’s and the Jewish people’s survival? Won’t politicians always say yes to these questions? Or is that beside the point for our purposes here? This is the time to decide that we do not want to be divided further, and instead to find a way to live together in a Jewish democratic State that allows for full equality for women, for pluralism, for sharing resources among various recognized streams of Judaism and thus a possible shared future. Otherwise, I fear that we are headed toward a future determined by sinat hinam (senseless hatred), which destroyed the second Temple according to our talmudic sages.

We must find a way to respond to these issues together if we want to claim for our descendants, like Abraham wanted to claim when he buried Sarah here, our eternal, unbroken collective connection to this sacred land. A connection and claim maintained by Jacob and Joseph even when they lived outside the Land (as we see in this week’s Torah portion, Genesis 47).

Ironically, we have found a way to compromise even with the Muslim Palestinian community at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and use special security forces and legal powers to ensure peace and equal access. Even with the great differences among Jews in Israel and around the world, I believe we will one day find a way toward new and creative possibilities for the Jewish people, even at the Western Wall.

Then we will know that the debates of today were “for the sake of Heaven,” in the spirit of Hillel and Shammai, who, despite their deep differences, found a way to respect and even integrate each others’ opinions along the way.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Her column appears monthly.
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